The Hand of God Entrances but Disappoints
Films that wear their explicit autobiographical nature on their sleeves are often both the hardest to get right and the hardest to critique. The overtly personal subject matter can get the best of even the most disciplined filmmaker, and subsequently can lead the critic — who is, after all, human, and (hopefully) possesses some modicum of empathy — to second guess their own emotional and analytical response. As I watched The Hand of God, the latest from Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino, I was reminded of the messiness and subjectivity inherent in the creation and appreciation of art in all its forms: never mind the occasional “debate” about the critic’s ability to pass judgement on an artist’s work, few critics worth their salt are looking for excuses to gleefully tear down a film — emotionality and craft are often deviously entangled, and engaging with the piece honestly involves parsing out the two as best one can.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I say all this to preface the fact that — despite the clear passion and pain behind it — The Hand of God never quite finds the transcendental qualities it’s searching for. That’s not to say there’s nothing to like; in fact, there’s plenty of promise in the first half in particular. Sorrentino structures the film around (presumably) his stand-in, a teenager in 1980s Naples named Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), who spends most of his time enjoying the company of his family (immediate and extended) and praying that the great Diego Maradona will bring his talents to the Napoli professional football club. The joyful and carefree summers of youth are wonderfully on display for the first hour or so, and entertaining eccentricities abound — even as they hint at something darker. The lustful obsession Fabietto has for his aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) is undermined by her abusive home life; the charming and romantic interplay between Fabietto’s mother and father (Toni Servillo and Teresa Saponangelo, the clear standouts) is disrupted by infidelity.
Sorrentino and the film are at their best in the moments shared among family, where comedy and reality are expertly balanced, but the second half unfortunately exchanges what were — for the most part — richly drawn characters for new faces that feel much more like caricatures, spouting profundities with little to say. This shift stems from an abrupt narrative turn at the film’s midpoint, one that won’t be unexpected for those with some familiarity with Sorrentino’s life story. It’s here where the role of the critic becomes a particularly tricky one, as — regardless of the understanding that the film stands as autofiction, rather than autobiography — what’s playing out on screen has clear roots in a real, personal, unimaginable tragedy, and the commendability of expression must be separated from artistic impact.
Though the film continues to look fantastic (there’s style and bravura camera moves aplenty, courtesy of Sorrentino and cinematographer Daria D’Antonio), the story’s fatal flaw rises to the top: we’re never given much of a compelling reason to truly care about our director surrogate. So much of the film’s charisma lies with its supporting characters, and when we lose their vibrancy in the second half Fabietto’s thinly sketched motivations aren’t enough to shoulder the extra load. Yes, we know that Sorrentino became a filmmaker, but Fabietto’s turn towards wanting to become a director comes seemingly out of nowhere, setting up a series of events that don’t have the heft on the screen that it appears they may have had in reality — on the whole, cohesion comes and goes and connections are made but not quite earned. Though there’s a real vulnerability on display here — worth admiring, as film-as-memoir can sometimes reek of ego — as well as moments of impeccable craft, the emotional resonance of the story unfortunately can’t overcome the flaccidness of the back half, leaving us empathetic, but ultimately disappointed.